(Photo courtesy of WSHU). “Freestanding sign that reads ‘VOTE HERE’.”
On November 7, 2023, Americans in several states took to the polls to cast their votes on Election Day. Generally speaking, odd-numbered election years in America are considered to be less important than presidential or midterm election years because of the small number of races that take part in them as well as the lack of any Congressional elections. However, that does not mean that they are not important. This year featured two highly competitive governors’ races in Kentucky and Mississippi, midterm elections for the Virginia state legislature and ballot initiatives in Ohio focusing on abortion and marijuana legalization.
Broadly speaking, the 2023 elections were a resounding victory for Democrats. They kept the Kentucky governorship, came impressively close in Mississippi, flipped the Virginia House of Delegates, kept the Virginia Senate and won on both ballot initiatives in Ohio.
Because of how important of an issue abortion is in the wake of Roe vs. Wade’s overturning, Democrats had a significant electoral advantage going into this year’s elections. Millions of voters are now excited to vote based on abortion rights, which has also raised the relevance and electoral importance of the issue. UMass Lowell Associate Professor of Political Science John Cluverius described abortion rights’ role in these elections as “…the most salient issue right now other than maybe housing costs” and reflected on the 2023 election results by saying, “I think there was some question coming into this election about how important abortion would be a year plus after the Dobbs decision and it’s clear that not only is it very important to voters, but overwhelmingly, they favor rights.” This could be seen in Ohio, in which a constitutional right to abortion won by 13% despite the state’s Republican lean.
It is not at all uncommon for voters to cross party lines in gubernatorial races and generally support opposite-party governors if the nominee is favorable to the state’s conditions. Instances such as this can be seen in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia. Kentucky governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, won reelection by 5% against Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
Beshear’s popularity in the state helped create a distinction between himself and the national Democratic Party despite Cameron’s best efforts, which did include Beshear’s pro-choice stances. Although Democratic nominee Brandon Presley lost the governor’s race in Mississippi, the characteristics of the state as well as his electoral performance means that even coming as close as Presley did makes it a win for him. Professor Cluverius described the state as “[having] highly racially polarized voting and it is more difficult to vote in Mississippi than other southern states so you don’t have advantages in surges in turnout from infrequent voters who might respond from scandals surrounding Tate Reeves.”
As well, Democrats flipped the Virginia House of Delegates and kept the Virginia Senate in what could be viewed as a referendum on Republican governor Glenn Youngkin’s conservative legislative ambitions. Youngkin and Virginia Republicans ran on gaining the ability to pass more conservative legislation should the Democratic-controlled Senate flip, but that message was contrary to both the source of Youngkin’s popularity in the state and the priorities of voters. Professor Cluverius described Youngkin’s political environment as “[being unable] to implement as rigorous a conservative agenda as Republican governors in other states, making him look more moderate” and his popularity as “sort of buoyed by the fact that he has had to govern in a more moderate way overall.”
Still, Youngkin campaigned on a variety of conservative proposals including a 15-week abortion ban. Voters tend to not cross party lines in state legislature elections as they do with gubernatorial ones. As a result, Virginia Republicans’ political positions on many issues were seen as unfavorable by voters.
Despite this good news for Democrats, it does not necessarily mean that they should enter 2024 with the assumption that their wins are all but guaranteed. Off-year elections create an entirely different environment than presidential election years, and it is important to remember that the types of voters who vote in off-year elections tend to skew Democratic. As Professor Cluverius put it, “They generally are more informed, they pay attention to politics and news about elections. They tend to be more frequent voters overall.”
A coalition of informed and frequent voters stands to benefit President Biden, but they will not be the only ones voting. Disaffected voters who may feel more motivated to turn out with Donald Trump on the ballot could very well swing the election in his favor, meaning that Democrats have plenty of work to do if they want to keep the White House come 2025.
Even with these dynamics and the significance of abortion, Professor Cluverius argues that it is still important to consider “….how many voters who support abortion rights will also vote for Trump compared to [voting for abortion ballot initiatives.”